What Have You To Do With Us?
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on January 31, 2021.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
29 As soon as they[n] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
I’m going to be really honest with you and say I’ve never preached this particular passage before, nor is it one that I would ever necessarily choose to preach. Yet in many ways this is the beauty and challenge of the lectionary. The lectionary is this schedule of scripture readings that are mapped out for us Sunday by Sunday throughout the whole year… readings that we might not ever choose to read if left to our own preferences as pastors, but readings that very well might be a direction God would like us to explore, even if they’re challenging to understand. This week our scripture essentially recounts an exorcism and a healing, both acts of Jesus that immediately follow his gathering of disciples last week.
We’ve been tracking Jesus from his birth on Christmas, the visit of the Magi on Epiphany, through his baptism as a young adult, and then on to his calling of the disciples for the past two weeks. The Gospel of Mark is famous for keeping a brisk pace and moving from one scene to the next without much time to stop and smell the roses. And so it is from the shore of the Galilee Sea where we left off last week, that Jesus has to only take a few steps to land in Capernaum, a nearby village overlooking the sea. And it’s there in the village synagogue that Jesus pivots from community gathering to community teaching. And his teaching doesn’t just use words.
What strikes me first off about Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue that day was the reaction that he got. We don’t know exactly what he was teaching, but the scripture says that those who were listening were “astounded with his teaching” and that he taught with “authority.” It seemed as though Jesus, so early in his ministry, was already commanding the room. Speaking with confidence and people were paying attention.
But then the energy in the room shifts when a man, described in the scripture as having an “unclean spirit” came in. We can’t begin to know exactly was going on here… having an unclean spirit in the 1st century A.D. has been speculated to mean that perhaps this man was mentally ill. Or perhaps he had a medical condition. Or perhaps he was consumed with demonic thoughts- a raging addiction, or maybe even depression. Whatever it is that has consumed this man, it is clear that it has truly consumed him. His voice is not his own. He speaks to Jesus in a manner that seems to make fun of the authority that the rest of the congregation has felt from Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” As if this spirit inside the man bows to no authority except itself; it thinks it’s uncontrollable and that Jesus can’t touch it. The spirit then continues in its mocking tone, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
I liked the way commentator Debie Thomas puts it. She said: “what disturbed me most was not “who” or “what” the spirit actually was, but how utterly it ravaged the poor man whose body and mind it possessed. According to Mark's account, the man had no voice of his own — the spirit spoke for him. The man had no control over his body — the spirit convulsed him. The man had no community — the spirit isolated him. And the man had no dignity — the spirit dehumanized him.”
It is face to face with this evil spirit that Jesus brings every ounce of his authority. Even though this man, possessed by an unclean spirit, has interrupted Jesus’ teaching that day, Jesus chooses to give this man his full attention; to use the authority given to him by God to step into the brokenness that is this man’s existence and cast out the evil spirit that had taken possession of him. Jesus stood up to the powers of illness and rage and evil possession—everything that thinks it can take us hostage—and Jesus says: “silence! Come out!”
Jesus has authority over that which thinks it’s too broken to be fixed. This is Jesus’ innate sense of justice –that the broken have a right to be healed. In a culture that marginalized those who were not whole and healthy, Jesus made this man, broken and possessed as he was, a front and center part of his teaching that day. Some of his teachings used words, but as the evil spirit released its grasp on that poor man, the rest of Jesus’ teaching didn’t need words. Jesus has come to restore the broken, to heal the sick, to cast out the unwanted forces that have taken up residency in our minds. Right after Jesus draws the unclean spirit out this man, he goes to the bedside of Simon Peter’s sick mother-in-law and heals her of a fever that threatens to take her life. Everyone is amazed at this man. This is Jesus’ astonishing, counter-cultural teaching: that everyone deserves to be well.
Almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, it takes a lot to astonish us anymore. We have become more and more desensitized to the brokenness around us. Virus mutations, ridiculous death tolls, another acquaintance very sick or dead, mask debates that somehow are still happening, and a constant cycle of quarantines and school shut-downs have left an unavoidable feeling of numbness. Each day brings the expectation of bad news and so why bother being surprised? I feel like the emotion of “astonishment” takes a lot of mental exercise these days.
But when Jesus asks us to follow him, to leave behind our boats on the sea shore and to go with him on his ministry, Jesus means for us to keep practicing our astonishment. Because to witness Jesus’ incredible acts of compassion and healing is to believe his teachings. And to believe his teachings, like to really believe his teachings, even the ones that make us raise our 21st century eyebrows—means we’re going to have to really work on that feeling of astonishment. Because it’s that feeling of astonishment that shakes us out of complacency. It pulls us out of the dark place where we aren’t even moved by the brokenness of another human being.
Disease and mental illness and broken spirits and bodies of all kinds are no less prevalent in the 21st century as they were in the 1st century. But the truly astonishing thing for us today is not that Jesus performed a miracle 2000 years ago by insisting that everyone deserves to be well and whole, but that Jesus is still performing that same miracle even today. The miracle is that in a world with broken bodies and broken spirits everywhere you look, there are some people who notice the brokenness, that’s the miracle. That they allow themselves to be interrupted by the brokenness, and still see it as an injustice. The miracle is that Jesus’ authority to heal and make people whole again is still very much alive and working. It’s working through groups like AA. Support groups that see past the addiction to the person struggling to find a life again. It’s working through friends that support one another through family crises and grief. It’s working through mental health counselors who see a whole person behind the cracks and brokenness that illness can cause. It’s working through churches that support recovery ministries and choose see the wholeness within each person.
We might say we don’t believe in exorcisms in this day and age. But the truth is there aren’t any fewer demons that troll our minds and spirits today than there were in Jesus’ day. There are forces in this world that we cannot explain or control. There are forces around us that seek to draw us away from the love and power of God; to take possession of our bodies and our minds and break us down.
But Jesus’ teaching that day in Capernaum is the same as his teaching today. Do not accept that brokenness is the way it has to be. Jesus comes face to face with those forces and says, not today, Satan. Not any day. Everyone deserves to be whole and healthy. Everyone deserves salvation.
What does Jesus have to do with us, the man with the unclean spirit asks. Everything. Jesus has everything to do with us. Into every desperate part of our lives, Jesus has comes to bring healing.
A song came to mind this week as I reflected on this scripture. It’s a song sung by Lauren Daigle and goes like this:
“I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I'm not enough Every single lie that tells me I will never measure up
Am I more than just the sum of every high and every low Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know.”
To me this song puts words to the feeling of brokenness that can tear at our bodies and minds when we feel isolated from God. Whether it’s a physical illness, a mental illness, a debilitating and consuming addiction, or anything that torments us and claims to have authority over us, Jesus comes in with his own authority and says we are loved, we are strong, we are held, we belong. In Jesus’ kingdom, everyone deserves to be well.
Nadia Boltz Weber is a Lutheran pastor out in Colorado who has written freely about her own struggle with the demon of her depression, which has possessed her and isolated her from God at times in her life. She says, “Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them, and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And those are the lies that Jesus cannot abide.” (from her book Accidental Saints)
You are worthy. You are loved. The forces in your life that try to isolate you from the love of God will meet their match in Jesus. The miracle of Jesus’ healing lives on to this day. If you would like to know more about recovery ministries at our church or in our area, please, please, reach out to me. If you are feeling called to help start or lead more of these ministries, please, please, reach out to me.
Go now in the peace of Christ, the restorative power of the Holy Spirit and the abiding love of our Creator, Amen.
Grace and Peace,